Saturday, 5 May 2012

To Heaven by Water (Author: Justin Cartwright)

The Blurb from Amazon: 

With the subtlety of Ian McEwan and the pathos of Kazuo Ishiguro, a wise, compassionate novel about age, loss, and moving forward. As he moves toward old age, David Cross finds himself living an unexpected new life. Having lost his wife, Nancy, to illness, and retired from his job as a prominent television news anchor, David is working out in the gym and becoming very thin. His children, Ed and Lucy, embarking on careers and lives on their own, suspect him of being on the lookout for a new woman. He cannot tell them that he is, in some ways, happier than he was before Nancy died.  

As Ed and his dancer wife, Rosalie, struggle to conceive a child and Lucy seeks refuge from a chaotic ex-boyfriend, all of them are now forced to face their lives without the woman who was the center of the family. With their personal lives spinning out of control, they each must find a way to hold firm. And when David goes to see his estranged brother deep in the African desert, he will come to an unexpected, meaningful, and life-affirming epiphany.  

Filled with rich characterization, warm humor, and shocking surprises, To Heaven by Water is a masterwork of great subtlety, a moving novel from a keen observer of life as we live it now.

My Thoughts on To Heaven by Water:

With an opening sentence of “Deep in the Kalahari, two brothers, Guy and David Cross, no longer young, are sitting by a campfire.” Justin Cartwright had me hooked. I mean, such a lovely use of the elegantly simple comma, not to mention the description of the men as “no longer young” resonating with a line from Don Quixote, just had to usher in a great reading experience.  And it did. 

So many books are described as being “multi-layered” these days that it has become quite hackneyed and almost yawn-inducing phrase. But here, with this lovely To Heaven by Water, we do indeed have a book which is multi-layered, which comes at life from vastly different directions, which deals with so many aspects of life – loving, aging, false hope, self-denial, self-obsession, greed in all its guises – that I can’t really imagine any reader not finding themselves in at least one clever phrase, one revealing, perhaps embarrassing, conversation or encounter. And thus, of course, the book appeals not just to that little section of the brain which revels in a damned good read but also that rather large section which deals with ego and self-reflection. 

What is it about? Well, that is covered so well in the blurb from Amazon above that I don’t need to go over the details of the story. Let’s just say the main character, David Cross, recently widowed and newly retired famous television anchor man and international correspondent, is examining his life, dealing with accusations directed at others that he has long buried, facing up to the demons and shortcomings in his own character, and through his dealings with his children, his brother and his friends, learning also to forgive himself and those he has judged so censoriously.  We also get to look at the world through the eyes of David’s daughter and son, Lucy and Ed, two people who are now facing life without the umbrella of their mother’s existence and finding themselves getting rather rained upon. And then, of course, we meet David’s brother, Guy, who wanders the Kalahari like some ancient mystic – one almost expects him to live on wild honey and grubs – usually off his face on dope, sometimes rambling poetically and philosophically, sometimes just like the boring stoner in the corner at a party you should have left an hour ago. 

I’ve marked a few bits and pieces in the book which I think are worth mentioning, whether for beautiful writing, pithy comment, or simply for a blending of words that make you go “Oh wow” as per: 

“This is what getting old produces in some people, a deliberate withdrawal from the hurts and insults – the acknowledgement of lack of presence.”

A bit sad that one, but very clever. And now, when David is watching a ballet performance:

“More and more David sees in art a desperate urge to fix ourselves in the universe – which he finds moving.”

I’m glad I’m not the only one moved to tears at concerts and the like. And here David is looking back on his relationship with Richard Burton and the price Burton paid for his fame:

“And that is what celebrity means to ordinary people, the power to escape the constraints of daily life. Burton had enormous amounts of money, the most beautiful woman in the world, and a voice which contained all the promise and possibility of human endeavour. What a burden for a miner’s son with a drink problem. Elizabeth was his reward: ‘Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies’.
“But he had left his first love and his children in Wales and in his heart he knew that he had committed a crime against nature.”

 And then, David here reflecting on his time of reporting hideous news: 

“He became a master of the sonorous platitude, a safe pair of hands, but also someone who graced the news with a kind of bogus gravitas. He wondered if they were living in a time of madness or merely the same world charged by the clamour for sensation.” 

Wow moments, indeed. 

And now, after David has been invited to address a local book group, this little gem (which of course doesn’t relate to any book group to which any of us here belong): 

“Book clubs, he thinks, are cover for the myriad longings and disappointments of female life. Women have a far stronger sense than men of what life might have been.” 

And do all the people say “Amen” here, or a resounding, “Nay, nay”? 

I found the next comments almost quite unnerving due to the fact that when you read them you know, without a doubt, they are correct: 

“At Global they prepared stories on the problem of lawlessness and out-of-control teenagers and mindless crimes of violence and schoolgirl pregnancy with relish, but they never suggested that in large swathes of the country this was perfectly acceptable, even traditional. In his experience, depraved behaviour is often the norm.” 

And now, just a lovely, very evocative sentence: 

“The streets are anticipating winter: they already have a defensive look – they crouch.”  

Don’t you know exactly what he means there, particularly anyone who has lived, or does live, in cold climes? 

And now David’s daughter, Lucy, thinking of what was written about her in a magazine article: 

“Her father once told her, quoting somebody or other, that diplomats lie to journalists and then believe what the journalists have written.” 

How clever is that?  I keep thinking I should send that quote to some politicians. 

And here, Lucy again, after a particularly terrifying and traumatic experience in her own apartment: 

“They may be killing each other casually with knives and guns down in South London, but here, in the still-living radius of her mother, most of us are terrified of randomness.” 

So true – we all like to abrogate our casual and random acts of violence to a different socio-economic group, a distant location on the globe, a younger, or older, age group, so that we can maintain our lovely veneer of “civilisation”. 

I hope the above makes you want to rush down to your local bookshop or library and find your own way To Heaven by Water. Happy reading.

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